“My Dear and Great Friend”. So began a touching three page, hand-written letter. It was addressed to my step-father, building on a friendship begun in a time of war.
If you are younger than a certain age (say 30), it is entirely possible that you have never written a letter. At the rate things are going with the USPS, I suggest you try it soon. Letters are a much more personal and permanent communication than an email, tweet or text could ever be. For one thing, each person’s handwriting is uniquely theirs and even that varies by mood and purpose. You see a woman’s love letter and even the loops in the letters say romance. Watch that same woman write an angry diatribe at a politician, a friend who did her wrong or a partner and you’ll see where the pen pressed down deeply in the paper, where her writing slants up or down and where the letters get bigger for emphasis. And a signature, unspoiled by the speed we sign our name at a retail checkout is a part of one’s identity. Think about where else you see the word, like the phrase “signature style” – doesn’t that mean a style that is yours alone?
A hand-written letter is more than a communication, it is a gift. Well-written, poignant, funny, angry – whatever, they are read and re-read, shared and kept to read again another day. I have a love letter from an old boyfriend from when I was in high school. Its very sweet and romantic, right up to the moment when he blows smoke from a joint on a sand crab and it dies. Well, he was young. There’s a letter form a boy in college, apologizing for standing me up. Truth be told, I was mad. But this letter contained every trite phrase ever composed. He didn’t mean it to be a joke but it made me laugh and I never looked his way again. But the letter I kept and brought out for a good laugh when needed. One special letter came from my husband’s grandmother when she heard we’d gotten engaged. Her letter was more than congratulations. She shared the highs and lows of her marriage, her philosophy on making a marriage work (with special attention to the “modern woman’s emphasis on work” which was actually quite astute. I still have the letter from the first politician (local) who wrote me to invite me to be an official member of his campaign. There are letters from my grandfather – what a treasure! Letters from my father who was stationed abroad and so missed my high school graduation. Actually, as a child, I would write letters to my father wherever he was stationed and he, a frustrated would-be English teacher, would send them back corrected in red ink. He corrected spelling and chided me not to use worn-out greetings like “How are you? I am fine” as we were taught to do in school. Yes. In school. Children used to learn how to write a proper social letter and business letter as part of their English lessons.
Letters offer more than memories; they are a way to track history. Did you know that Churchill and Roosevelt kept up secret correspondence throughout World War II? They have proven to be a valuable source to learn what these world leaders were thinking. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were also great correspondents whose letters offer great historical insight. (Trivia: both died on July 4, 1826 within hours of each other.). Letter writers don’t have to be famous to give us a look at history. In my family, we have my stepfather’s correspondence during and after World War II. Letters from home show the impact on the homefront. But the letters from friends he made overseas offer a different look into postwar rebuilding and shortages and how much the U.S. was admired and trusted.
With technology changing at a faster and faster pace, its an easy argument to make that, no matter how beautifully you write words and compose letters, emails, tweets, texts and whatever comes next to make these formats dinosaurs, its hard to imagine keeping them around in the same way. Even if you keep print copies or digital copies, they won’t be as expressive as an actual letter.
If you’re even remotely interested, I have a challenge for you. Get a piece of paper or two. Its very hard to actually buy stationery anymore. Write a hand-written letter to someone who is important to you. It doesn’t have to be long but make it heartfelt. Actually, send two. Send one to someone older than you who will be touched by your gesture and likely to write back. You need the experience of receiving a letter as much as sending one. and make the second one to whoever you choose, regardless of age. If they’re younger than you, you’ll be giving them a gift they may never get again. I swear to you I have no stock in the U.S. Postal Service. This exercise will only cost you $.88 for two stamps. But the letters will be, as they say, priceless.